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In bringing Macbeth to the screen, Welles made several changes to Shakespeare's original. He added sequences involving the witches to increase their significance. At the beginning of the film, they create a clay figurine of Macbeth, which is used to symbolize his rise and ruin. It collapses in a heap, seemingly of its own volition, immediately after Macbeth is beheaded. The witches seem to cast a spell on the doll, and anything that happens to it seems to happen also to Macbeth, as in voodoo. The witches also return at the end of the film, viewing the drama from afar and uttering "Peace, the charm's wound up" as the final line; this line is spoken in the first act in the original text, when the witches initially confront Macbeth.
A major change is Welles' introduction of a new character, the Holy Man. The priest recites the prayer of Saint Michael. Welles later explained that the character's presence was meant to confirm that "the main point of that production is the struggle between the old and new religions. I saw the witches as representatives of a Druidical pagan religion suppressed byChristianity – itself a new arrival."[page needed] There is a subtle insinuation that Lady Macbeth fatally stabs Duncan prior to Macbeth's attack on the king, and Macbeth is witness to Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking and madness scene; in the play, he is not present.
Other changes were made to make the play more cinematic. Nearly all of King Duncan's scenes at the beginning of the play have been cut as well as the character of Donalbain, his second son. Macbeth is seen dictating his letter to his wife, rather than writing it himself. In the play, no such dictation scene exists.[page needed] The Thane of Cawdor's execution takes place on-screen accompanied by insistent drumbeats. Lady Macbeth's suicide and the final battle between Macbeth's forces and Macduff's army are depicted on-screen; in the play, both scenes occur off-stage. Rather than fatally stabbing Macbeth and then beheading the dead body, Macduff kills Macbeth by slashing off his head. Needless to say, lines have been cut, speeches have been reassigned, scenes have been reordered, etc. This scandalized many critics at the time; today it is accepted practice to do so in film versions of Shakespeare plays to an even greater degree than Welles did, as Jean-Luc Godard did in his highly unusual and controversial King Lear, and as Peter Greenaway did in Prospero's Books.
The film was shot on leftover sets for the westerns that were normally made at Republic Studios. In order to accommodate the tight production schedule, Welles had the Macbeth cast pre-record their dialogue.
Welles later expressed frustration with the film's low budget trappings. Most of the costumes were rented from Western Costume, except those for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. "Mine should have been sent back, because I looked like the Statue of Liberty in it," Welles told filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. "But there was no dough for another and nothing in stock at Western would fit me, so I was stuck with it."
Welles also told Bogdanovich that the scene he felt was most effective was actually based on hunger. "Our best crowd scene was a shot where all the massed forces of Macduff's army are charging the castle", he said. "There was a very vivid urgency to it, because what was happening, really, was that we'd just called noon break, and all those extras were rushing off to lunch."
Welles shot Macbeth in 23 days, with one day devoted to retakes.
Release and reception
Republic initially planned to have Macbeth in release by December 1947, but Welles was not ready with the film. The studio entered the film in the 1948 Venice Film Festival, but it was abruptly withdrawn when it was compared unfavorably against Olivier's version of Hamlet, which was also in the festival's competition.
In the U.S. theatrical release, Republic tested the film in a few cities. Critical reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with complaints about Welles's decision to have his cast speak in Scottish burrs and modify the original text.
After its original release, Republic had Welles cut two reels from the film and ordered him to have much of the soundtrack re-recorded with the actors speaking in their natural voices, and not the approximation of Scottish accents that Welles initially requested. This new version was released by Republic in 1950. While critical reaction was still not supportive, the film earned a small profit for the studio.
Welles would maintain mixed emotions about Macbeth. In a 1953 lecture at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he said: "My purpose in making Macbeth was not to make a great film – and this is unusual, because I think that every film director, even when he is making nonsense, should have as his purpose the making of a great film. I thought I was making what might be a good film, and what, if the 23-day day shoot schedule came off, might encourage other filmmakers to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed. Unfortunately, not one critic in any part of the world chose to compliment me on the speed. They thought it was a scandal that it should only take 23 days. Of course, they were right, but I could not write to every one of them and explain that no one would give me any money for a further day's shooting...However, I am not ashamed of the limitations of the picture."
The truncated version of Macbeth remained in release until 1980, when the original uncut version with the Scottish-tinged soundtrack was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Critical opinion of the film has drastically improved since its original release, with many now regarding it as one of Welles' most notable films. On Rotten Tomatoes, 87% of 23 critics gave the film positive reviews, with a 7.4 out of 10 rating; its consensus reads: "This haunting, eccentric Macbeth may be hampered by budget constraints, but Orson Welles delivers both behind and in front of the camera."
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